John Dickson Responds to Simon Robert’s Critique

Response to Simon Roberts’ review of Hearing Her Voice: a Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson

Simon Roberts’ critique of Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons is perhaps the most on-topic of all the reviews I have read so far. On the whole it is written in a spirit of collegiality and respect, and it is clear the topic means a great deal to him—the review is a third the length of my book. I have to point out below, however, at times quite firmly, that his analysis lacks plausibility at almost every turn.

Throughout the review, Simon seeks to take up my challenge, stated several times, to demonstrate from the Pastoral Epistles how Christian ‘teaching’ clearly means something other than “laying down the apostolic deposit”. What he ends up doing, however, is offering a promising list of every occurrence of didaskein and cognates, followed by a series of exegetical and linguistic suggestions that do not add up to an argument. His ‘Venn theology’ diagram at the end commits a logical error and inadvertently strengthens my case.

The ‘normal’ usage of teaching?

Simon begins by suggesting that my understanding of didaskein in the Pastoral Epistles offers a meaning “quite unlike the normal Greek usage.” He never tells us what that normal usage is. The usage where? In Homer? In Epictetus? In the New Testament? In Sydney Anglican circles? And what meaning do we find there? He appears to have made the common mistake of thinking that there is such a thing as a dictionary definition that every instance of a term must be made to fit. But dictionary definitions are designed to be broad enough to fit all occurrences of a term and, as a result, are rarely specific enough to accurately describe particular usages.

In fact, what I am suggesting for the Pastorals Epistles is not ‘unlike’ the use of the term in Greek at all. It is just a particular subset of the normal usage. If ‘teach’ means to transmit information from instructor to student (or something like that; Simon never says), all I am saying is that in the Pastoral Epistles the ‘information’ transmitted is the deposit of apostolic words and the method of transmission is principally oral not text-based. This is hardly ‘unlike the normal Greek usage’. Indeed, there is no more apt term in the Greek language for the ongoing process of fixing a body of material in the minds of students.

The correct assumptions

Simon disputes my claim that ‘teaching’ is laying down the apostolic deposit, dismissing the thesis as something I place on the text rather than find in the text. “Rather than arguing and developing a case grounded in the Pastoral Epistles,” he says of my argument, “it is the presupposition [Dickson] brings to these texts.” Readers of both our works will have to judge whether this is fair, but I will admit to bringing one important assumption to the text of the Pauline Epistles. The vast bulk of apostolic material—the substance of what Christians were to learn—was not written down when Paul wrote to Timothy. This is an assumption that can hardly be disputed, and it changes everything. It forces us to give up anachronistic understandings of the English word ‘teach’ (where we mean ‘teach the Bible’) and imagine what it was like to instruct congregations in Ephesus in the middle of the first century. Suddenly, it becomes clear that one could not stand up and say “My text for today is …” and then seek to explain and apply it. Instead, what was required was a fixing of the new covenant information in the minds of congregations (in a manner amply performed today by Bible reading and some sermons). Without a Gospel in their possession in Ephesus in AD 60, Christians had nowhere to turn to know what Jesus said, or what the apostles said about Jesus, without relying on people who were entrusted with memorizing and repeating this material.

When we read the text of the Pastoral Epistles with this assumption in mind—rather than with modern assumptions about texts and sermons—I think Paul’s usage leaps out of the page. So do most New Testament specialists, by the way. What I am saying about Pauline teaching is very widely accepted. The reason I don’t laboriously walk through every instance of didaskein and cognates in my book is that I assumed those acquainted with New Testament studies would know this and those who didn’t know it would be satisfied with the several clear examples I offered.

Simon seeks to overturn this straightforward understanding of ‘teaching’ by a walk-through of some relevant passages. I appreciate the time he must have put into this, but I believe I can show that his thoughts remain unconvincing.

Disputing texts in 1 Timothy

Simon skirts over the first two instances of the terminology. In 1 Tim 1:3 Paul wants Timothy to rebuke those who “teach-otherwise” (heterodidaskelo), i.e., who teach things that are not correct. Surely, this tells us instantly that there is a body of ‘teaching’ Timothy knows is orthodox as opposed to heterodox. Where was that information? It certainly wasn’t written down.

We find out soon enough that these people style themselves ‘law-teachers’ (nomodidaskaloi), a term that obviously casts them as those who lay down Jewish customs instead of the gospel doctrines. Paul in fact makes this contrast at the end of the same paragraph where he refers to “whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching (didaskalia) according to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (1 Tim 1:10-11). Simon does not mention this text in his walk-through, but the parallel between the ‘sound teaching’ and ‘the entrusted gospel’ pretty much guarantees the meaning of didsakein and cognates I am advocating. It is the apostolic entrustment or deposit.

Simon picks up at 1 Tim 2:7 where Paul says he was appointed a “teacher of Gentiles”. Simon understands this as explanatory of the other two titles Paul gives himself in this verse, ‘apostle’ and ‘herald’. I doubt this is right because in the parallel passage of 2 Tim 1:11 Paul says pretty much the same thing, where the three titles stand apart: “And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.” Whatever the case, it should be obvious that Paul’s role as a ‘teacher’ is set in contrast to the ‘law-teachers’ mentioned earlier. Paul is not an instructor in a nebulous sense of passing on true things to students; he has a fixed message he is to lay down, as the preceding verse makes clear:  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed … teacher” (1 Tim 2:5-7).

Simon asks: “is there anything so far in the text which indicates (or better yet, demands) that Paul is using ‘teaching’ language in a specialised and unusual way?” The answer is yes and no. It is specialised but it is not unusual.

At this point, Simon creates a contrast for his readers between a statement of common sense and an idea I am meant to have proposed:

The Christian teacher must be a godly person as well as convey the right information about Christ. What is shared is life and doctrine; there is an intimate connection between the teacher, what is taught and who is taught. This does not sit at all well with Dickson’s assertion that ‘teaching’ is “preserving and laying down the body of oral traditions first handed over by the apostles”. In the Pastoral Epistles the act of teaching and the content of what is taught is much more than just conveying accurate information about Christ. Teaching here necessarily involves making an impact on people’s lives.

So, a teacher being godly and talking about a life of godliness “does not sit at all well” with what I have argued! Such passages, which appear several times in Simon’s piece, function as boo-words, where you make an obvious and irrefutable statement of Christian piety and declare that the statement does not fit with your opponent’s argument. Those who have not read my book will be left wondering how I could have been so remiss as to suggest that teachers were not meant to be godly or share real life with their students. So, to be clear, I agree with Simon’s stress on godly living. I just can’t see how he could imagine I thought otherwise.

Leaving aside the further claim that my account of the key verse, 1 Tim 2:12, “somewhat clouds the grammar of these sentences,” Simon insists that what is taught here is “the truth about the one mediator Christ and the godly life that flows from that saving knowledge.” He thinks the context confirms it because in sentences nearby Paul has mentioned things like lifting holy hands and adorning oneself with good works. I must point out three things in response. First, I have never thought ‘context’ works like that. Lifting holy hands (v.8) and adorning yourself with good works (v.10) are no more hints at the content of ‘teaching’ in v.12 than the women’s fine hairstyles in v.9 should be thought of as the cause of the “anger and disputing” in v.8. Proximity does not establish meaning. Secondly, I repeatedly say in the book that ‘teaching’ involves ethical instructions, since the apostolic deposit was full of moral content. Simon creates a false dichotomy out of my account of teaching. Thirdly, it is worth noting that ‘teach’ in 1 Tim 2:12 is grammatically intransitive (as it often is). Paul doesn’t have to qualify it as “teach the Bible”, “teach the gospel”, “teach the truth”, “teach how to behave”. The term stands alone, suggesting that it has a clear and established meaning for Paul and Timothy. Based on the two preceding usages of Christian ‘teaching’—once of the fixed body of sound doctrine (1:10-11) and once of Paul’s commission to be the Gentiles’ teacher of the mediator Jesus Christ—I would say the meaning in 1 Tim 2:12 is plain. It means to lay down for churches the remembrances and rulings of the apostles.

Moving to 1 Tim 4:11, Simon thinks it would be tautologous for Paul to say “command and teach these things”. If ‘teach’ means transmit the apostolic words, then ‘command’ and ‘teach’ are virtually synonymous (or tautologous). A reader of Paul’s Greek should know better. Paul frequently describes one activity from two vantage points. Here, he is saying, “Insist on these things, will you; lay them down.” There is no tautology.

Simon’s account of ‘teaching’ in 1 Tim 4:13 sounds desperate. Given that the preceding verse concerns the young Timothy’s public profile and the following verse his ministry charisma, there is no way this middle verse is about private reading, devotion to Paul’s exhortations and Paul’s teaching of Timothy. I would be interested to know if Simon found a commentator in support before he put the thought in writing. The ESV surely gets it right when it translates this verse: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to (the) exhortation, to (the) teaching.” To miss the public nature of these activities seems strained.

As for the use of ‘the exhortation’ in this verse, Simon’s dictionary definition is “come and be present where the speaker is.” It just misses the mark. The use of the noun with the definite article suggests a well known speaking activity. It is not a nebulous ‘encouraging’ but ‘the exhortation’. This is widely acknowledged. Simon may declare that it “makes little sense to understand exhortation (in this verse) as ‘a Christian reflection on a reading’,” but I am content to keep the company of Howard Marshall on this one. As I say in the book, Marshall thinks Paul is talking about a ‘sermon’ involving explanations and appeals based on the Old Testament reading (such as are, in fact, named “a word of exhortation” in Acts 13:15 and Heb 13:22).

Similar criticisms apply to Simon’s reading of 1 Tim 6:2, “Teach and urge these things.” The parallel with 4:11 is obvious. Paul is again just saying, “Lay these things down, challenge people with them.” Here we touch on one of Simon’s imagined strongest arguments: the way these terms overlap. Here, ‘teach’ and ‘exhort’ appear side by side. Therefore, he says, it is “impossible to call them different activities.” Well, of course. Simon has misunderstood my argument if he thinks I am proposing that ‘exhorting’ on its own has the same technical quality as ‘teaching’. ‘The exhortation’ (1 Tim 4:13) takes on a formal meaning because of the definite article. Furthermore, ‘the one exhorting’ takes on a discreet sense in Rom 12:8 because Paul says it is distinguishable from ‘teaching’ (“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation”). But none of this means that every instance of the simple verb parakaleo means the same thing. That Simon could imagine I was saying this suggests to me that he approached my book with a rather unsympathetic outlook. I repeatedly make clear that ‘teaching’ will have involved a range of appeals. That’s what we find in 1 Tim 6:2.

More importantly, in discussing 1 Tim 6:2 Simon does not mention that the next verse contains our important term again, and its meaning is pretty clear. Paul criticizes the one who “teaches-otherwise (heterodidaskaleo) and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the godly teaching (didaskalia)” (6:3). Paul is talking about a fixed deposit of material from Jesus and himself which stands as the measure against which all “other teaching” is to be judged. It’s the same general body of material out of which Timothy is urged to ‘teach’ in the preceding verse.

The central text: 2 Tim 1:11 – 2:2

Simon’s discussion of 2 Tim 2:2 is the most revealing.

Paul urges, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Simon looks at this passage and states, “in this verse Timothy does not teach at all, he entrusts (paratithemi). Timothy entrusts what he has heard from Paul to others who in turn are able to teach.” His rationale is as follows: “for Dickson to be correct this requires that Paul is also using “paratithemi” (entrust) in a specific and technical way in 2 Tim 2:2. This is highly unlikely and is certainly not true of the other use of this word (1 Tim 1:18).” He repeats this line of argument in his discussion of Tit 2:1 where he can’t see how ‘say’ could appear in parallel with ‘teach’ without both having to be technical terms. The logic seems to be: synonyms of technical terms must also be technical terms; since ‘entrust’ and ‘say’ are not technical terms, nor is ‘teach’. I hope I am not being harsh when I say: this is fanciful. Simon invents a rule that no linguist or New Testament specialist could countenance and then shows how I break the rule. (In any case, he is probably also mistaken not to see paratithemi in this verse as a technical term, as I will explain below).

Simon’s treatment of this crucial passage (2 Tim 2:2) involves another oversight, one that changes everything. There is a missing kai in his analysis. Paul says “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The “also” in “teach others also” makes clear that what Timothy was to do for these trainee teachers—entrust the words of the apostle—is the same activity these new teachers were to do for others. And the activity is called ‘teaching’.

But things are more serious. While chasing linguistic shadows, Simon overlooks the way the whole flow of 2 Tim 1:11 – 2:2 puts my case about ‘teaching’ (at least in this important passage) beyond doubt. The connection between ‘teaching’ and the fixed (oral) apostolic traditions is clear from Paul’s opening statement about his own calling and its relation to Timothy’s calling:

11 For which [gospel] I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher (didaskalos), 12 which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted (paratheke) to me. 13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit (paratheke) entrusted to you”.

Paul first describes himself as a ‘teacher’ par excellence (as well a preacher and apostle), and then he urges Timothy to be the custodian of the teacher’s words. These words are not expositions of Scripture. They are a fixed set of apostolic rulings and remembrances, a “deposit,” that was entrusted to Timothy by word of mouth.

Notice the double use of ‘deposit’: the one entrusted to Paul by the Lord (v.12) and the one entrusted by Paul to Timothy (v.14). This is the term paratheke, a cognate noun of the verb paratithemi used a few verses later of Timothy’s responsibility to “entrust (the apostle’s words) to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2). This is why paratithemi in 2:2 probably is a technical term—a general word used in a highly specialised way—and Simon’s attempt to say otherwise by reaching back to an occurrence of the verb in a previous letter (1 Tim 1:18) while missing the double use of the cognate noun in the same rhetorical unit is surprising.

The flow of argument from Paul’s role as teacher (2 Tim 1:11-12) to Timothy’s role as custodian of the teacher’s words (2 Tim 1:13-14) to Timothy’s ongoing role to teach other teachers (2 Tim 2:1-2) makes plain what Simon’s analysis has obscured: for Paul, ‘teaching’ involves laying down the words of the apostolic deposit. This is the basic meaning of ‘teaching’ throughout the Pastoral Epistles. In his important study of this terminology throughout the New Testament Klaus Wegenast concluded that in the Pastoral Epistles especially, didasko means “to teach in the sense of handing down a fixed body of doctrine which must be mastered and then preserved intact.”  The underlying account of ‘teaching’ I offer in the book is far from novel and I do not believe it is challenged by Simon’s reflections.

The logic of Venn theology

Finally, Simon makes a simple error of logic in what he calls his Venn Theology. He offers a diagram of three intersecting circles—one for ‘teach’, one for ‘exhort’ and one for ‘prophesy’, the terms I say are used by Paul to refer to related but different kinds of speaking activities. He then claims that my argument demands that only the area of the ‘teaching’ circle that has no overlap (Area D) is what I call ‘teaching’. It is best to see and hear his own claims:

 Dickson seems to be saying that areas A, B and C (above) aren’t really teaching, because they are not uniquely teaching. Only area D is uniquely teaching and so Paul is only prohibiting what is covered from area D in 1 Tim 2:12. Why? It is quite illegitimate to claim that because something is not unique to teaching it isn’t teaching. And if areas A, B and C really are teaching, they are surely included in Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim 2:12

Simon gets himself muddled here. To respond with a sporting analogy: Suppose we put three sports into this Venn diagram, soccer, Rugby and AFL. The overlap of activities between them would be significant—running, kicking, some catching and throwing—but this does not make soccer the same as Rugby or Rugby the same as AFL, and so on. We call these different sports even if we all know they contain common elements. This is because the constitutive core of soccer, Rugby and AFL are all different. It is not to say that only the bits that are not like soccer constitute Rugby. It just means that, whatever the similarities, the basic shape and goals of the various sports are distinct.

The argument of my book is that prophesying, exhorting and teaching are overlapping activities that are also ‘different’ (Paul says so in Romans 12:8; cf 1 Tim 4:13), different enough for Paul only to forbid women to ‘teach’ men. Women may obviously prophesy to men, and he nowhere forbids exhorting. I have tried to articulate the constitutive core of ‘teaching’ as passing on the apostolic deposit. This is the central function of teaching, whatever else it may have in common with prophesying and exhorting. The constitutive core of ‘exhorting’, it seems to me, is to make appeals and encouragements on the basis of an authoritative message. Hence, exhorting referred to and quoted from the ‘teaching’, just as teaching no doubt involved ‘exhorting’. But this no sooner turns exhorting into teaching than it turns teaching into exhorting. To return to my analogy, Rugby frequently involves soccer-like activities (kicking), just as soccer frequently involves Rugby-like activities (marking), but none of this prevents us from being able to distinguish between the codes. Like some of Simon’s exegetical and linguistic proposals, his ‘Venn theology’ feels more imagined than real.

There is no avoiding the fact that Christian ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles does mean laying down the apostolic deposit. That meaning is clearly attested (even if it is disputed how frequently and how clearly). The question remains: Given that ‘teaching’ does have this meaning in the Pastoral Epistles, where in those letters does Christian ‘teaching’ ever clearly not mean this? I suppose Simon thinks he has met this challenge. I am content to allow readers of both our works to judge if that is true.


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